"Alice" underwhelms

How can something so fanciful fall so flat?

“Alice in Wonderland,” directed by master-of-the-macabre Tim Burton from Lewis Carroll’s twin tales of Victorian whimsy, isn’t so much a disaster as a disappointment. It’s a film of visual splendor and memorable performances that amounts to much less than the sum of its parts.

Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter are both striking as the Mad Hatter and Red Queen, respectively, while Stephen Fry steals all the scenes in which he appears as the voice of the Cheshire Cat.

But on the whole, everyone connected to the film seems like they’re trying too hard to be Bizarre with capital B.

Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton structure the movie around the conceit that a grown-up Alice returns to the Wonderland she visited as a child. A prelude and coda in 19th Century England takes easy potshots at upper-class Victorian customs while establishing Mia Wasikowska’s Alice as a thoroughly modern woman.

The heart of the film, of course, is Alice’s adventures in Wonderland and the mixture of live-action and computer-animated denizens abiding there. I saw the film in 2-D, how it’s showing at the State 123, so I can’t speak to the effect that 3-D has on the visuals, which are vivid but nothing we haven’t seen before in this age of “Avatar.”

Indeed, many of the film’s characters seem to fall into the Uncanny Valley where computer-generated people are photo-realistic but unsettlingly creepy at the same time.

When it comes to tales of allegorical escape into a fantasy world, “Alice” stands in the shadow of last year’s far superior “Where the Wild Things Are,” which spoke to more universal themes with an effortlessness that Burton’s strained adaptation never masters.

Which is a shame, because Carroll’s original stories are as delightful today as they were in 1865. This movie contains many choice bits of lunacy from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking-Glass,” cut up and rearranged and melded together but rarely provoking more than a smile.

“Alice in Wonderland” might not be a waste of your ticket money, but you may find yourself feeling the same sense of hollowness walking out.